Stone Age Art History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

For thousands of years humans have left their mark on the world by making art. Some of the earliest art on Earth includes small sculpted figurines and paintings on cave walls with natural pigments. In this lesson, we'll explore examples of Stone Age art.

What is the Stone Age?

People have made art for thousands of years. Some of the earliest art comes from the Stone Age, a time period during which early humans first made and used simple stone tools. Scholars divide the Stone Age into three spans of time: the Paleolithic (the word literally means old stone age), which runs from 2,500,000 to 10,000 BC; the Mesolithic, from 10,000 - 4000 BC; and the Neolithic, from 4000 - 2000 BC. In each period, the tools became a little more complex. The art from this time is also sometimes also called prehistoric art, because it was made before recorded history.

The people who created Stone Age art relied on natural materials they found in their environment. They used all types of stone and also mammoth ivory, animal bones and antler out of which they carved small figurines. They painted on cave walls, using clay ochres and iron oxide for yellows and reds, and manganese oxide and charcoal (burnt wood) for black. Think of the first ancient painters. How did they figure out what substances left the best mark? Stone Age art is an interesting glimpse into the ingenuity of early humans.

Art and Stone

Rock surfaces are prominent in Stone Age art. People carved into rock, painted on rocky cave walls, made figurines from stone and, toward the end of the Stone Age, constructed crude stone architecture.

Some of the Stone Age's earliest art is the most mysterious. Called cupules, early humans made cup-shaped hollows in the ground and in rocks, sometimes in groups or geometric patterns. Extensive study has demonstrated they are man-made (rather than a natural occurrence), but we don't know what they meant. They are some of the earliest artworks on the planet.

Examples of cupules in geometric formation
Cupules

Petroglyphs, carvings on cave walls and protected surfaces like rock overhangs, are another ancient art form. Some are geometric shapes, others are simple figures of people or animals. We're not sure why they carved such works, but these sites weren't permanent homes. Early Stone Age people were hunter-gathers, meaning they traveled all the time in search of food, following animal herds that migrated in different seasons. As they moved, they left their marks in protected places like caves that provided temporary shelter or held some special significance.

Example of petroglyphs at a site in the Southwestern United States
Example of petroglyphs

Venus figurines

Many carved figurines (a small human or animal figure) have been found from the Stone Age. Their small size makes sense when you think about their creators, who were always on the move. Small items could easily be carried and didn't take up much space. Most of these are Venus figurines, so-called because they are very exaggerated bodies of women. Regardless of the material out of which they are carved, most of these sculptures feature prominent breasts and hips. We don't know exactly what they mean, but scholars think they might be connected to fertility rituals. One of the most famous examples of a Venus figurine is the Venus of Willendorf, a four inch high figurine found in Austria. She is carved of limestone and was originally tinted with red ochre.

Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Willendorf

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